More Shopping Histories from the High Street

shoe shop

A few more shopping histories today to complete the set!

I mentioned C&A the other day in Swinging Sixties fashion shows

C&A was a chain of fashion retail clothing stores which evolved from a textiles company founded by two Dutch brothers, Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, in 1841.

The UK shops were started in the 1920s and had a strong High Street presence which expanded into out-of-town stores.

​However, the brand became associated with cheap clothes and lost popularity and by 2001 all 109 UK branches of C&A had closed with the loss of 4000 jobs.

image credit: By Leonardo Ferrer (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Another store which closed dramatically with the loss of many jobs was British Home Stores or BHS as it was re-branded in the 1980s.

The last purchase I made in a BHS store was a pair of pale blue hand towels in about 2007. That was at an out-of-town BHS and I don’t think I ever went in the store again after that.

The first branch of the British Home Stores was opened in Brixton in 1928 as a British owned alternative to Woolworths. The business expanded steadily and by the 1960s had over 90 branches. The post-1980s development of BHS is widely documented on the Internet as is speculation about the causes of its decline.

Some commentators have said the end of BHS will kick-start a regeneration of the High Street. With the explosion of on-line shopping I can’t see how!

The end of BHS in 2016 came only days after the decision to close the majority of fashion retailer Austin Reed stores with the loss of over 1000 jobs.

​Founded in 1900, the Austin Reed brand was synonymous with stylish tailoring for decades. In the 1960s my dad yearned for an Austin Reed suit but could only afford to go to Burtons.
Watching this fantastic video for a flavour of the stores, their history and style I can see why he was so keen….

I wonder if you remember Freeman, Hardy and Willis, a High Street shoe retailer which in its hey-day had over 500 UK branches.

The company was established in 1876 by Leicester boot and shoe manufacturer, Edward Wood whose first company commenced boot and shoe manufacture in 1870. Wood named his new company after the surnames of three employees: his manager; his architect; and his commercial traveller.

The first branch of Freeman, Hardy and Willis was opened in Wandsworth, London in 1877. By 1921, when Sir Edward Wood retired as Chairman, the company owned 428 shops.

image credit: OLU [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1927 the company was acquired by J. Sears and Co. and became, by the mid-1950s, the nucleus of the British Shoe Corporation. This went on to own Trueform, Curtess, Dolcis, Manfield, Saxone and Lilley & Skinner shoe shops in addition to Freeman, Hardy and Willis.

During the early 1960s the bags used to wrap the shoes were imprinted with the FHW letters and the slogan For Happy Walking.

In the early 1990s the British Shoe Corporation converted approximately half of the 540 Freeman, Hardy and Willis branches into Hush Puppies shops and sold off the remainder.

By 1996 all branches of Freeman, Hardy and Willis had closed.

When Mr and Mrs HW Smith were starting up their shop in 1792 they could easily have walked past the premises of William Clark at 44, Wigmore Street which was only about ten minutes walk distant. William Clark was a draper who sold fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols. He opened his shop in 1778 but over thirty years later, in 1813, he went into partnership with William Debenham and the shop was re-named Clark and Debenham.

The firm prospered although Clark was replaced by Mr Freebody to form Debenham and Freebody’s in 1851. By 1919 the company was global with many stores and business interests. An amalgamation with Marshall and Snelgrove and acquisition of Harvey Nick’s lead to further expansion. By 1950 Debenham’s had 84 companies and 110 stores and was the largest department store group in the UK.  At the present time Debenhams has 240 stores in 27 countries.

image credit: Lewis Clarke [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
I didn’t realise that Littlewoods stores and catalogue shopping were part of the same family business that started Littlewoods football pools in the 1920s. The mailing addresses from the football pools were used to target potential customers for the retail catalogues. Groups of customers formed into ‘clubs’ with a local agent processing orders, delivering goods, collecting payments and receiving commission. The business was so successful that the company moved into bricks and mortar selling in 1937. By the 1980s Littlewoods was the largest family owned company in the UK with over 20,000 employees. However, the catalogues were doomed once internet shopping was established and many of the stores became unviable and were sold on to various other companies.

image credit: By Ben Sutherland from Forest Hill, London. (DSCF1543) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
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More High Street shopping history

Boots the chemist

In the late 1960s I needed a Saturday job and managed to get one at WH Smith.

I also applied to Boots the Chemists, another High Street stalwart. Although I knew that Boots had originated as a family firm based in Nottingham I was unaware of the details.

John Boot was born in 1815 and worked as an agricultural labourer. However, ill health forced him to seek alternative employment and he started to sell herbal remedies concocted by his mother. In 1849 he opened a herbalist shop and taught himself about pharmacy.

John Boot and his wife had two children but unfortunately John died in 1860 when his son Jesse was only ten years old. However, Jesse was able to help his mother with the shop and made it his mission to bring cheaper medicines to the mass of the population. The business expanded and in 1909 Jesse Boot was knighted becoming Baron Trent of Nottingham. He sold the company in 1920 to American investors and re-located to Jersey where he died in 1931.

Boots continued to grow and expand into the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. There’s more info on the company website .

In my search for a Saturday job I also applied to Marks and Spencer. To no avail: I don’t think they offered Saturday jobs.

Marks & Spencer was formed in 1884 when Michael Marks, a Polish refugee opened a market stall in Leeds with the slogan ‘don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’.

Marks went into a partnership with Tom Spencer, a bookeeper by trade, and they opened several more market stalls in the north before launching their first shop in 1904.

M&S have a fantastic website devoted to the history of the company which includes an extensive on-line collection of photographs. Really worth looking at when you have a few minutes to spare.

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Another High Street history

WH Smith

In the late 1960s I really needed a Saturday job.

I couldn’t get one at Woolworths but had more success at WH Smith.

I hoped to work in the record department but the manager decided I was better suited to the toy department.

For over a year I donned my blue nylon overall, fixed a smile on my face and prepared to help the under tens part with their pocket money and birthday money. At the end of the day it was time to line up at the manager’s office and collect the pay: 18/6 in cash in a little brown envelope which made it all worth while.

Amazingly, the WH Smith story starts in 1792 when a Henry Walton Smith opened a small news vendor’s shop in Grosvenor Street, London.

To put this in context, this was only three years after the start of the French Revolution and Queen Victoria hadn’t even been born.

Smith died within a few months of opening the shop and his wife kept it going until their two sons were old enough to take over the business. William Henry Smith developed the business and in 1846 his son, also named William Henry, joined him

and the name was changed to WH Smith & Son.

In 1848 the first railway station outlet was opened at Euston

with many more shops opening rapidly as the railways expanded. By the mid-nineteenth century WHS had become the main retailer and distributor of newspapers in Britain. On the outbreak of WW1 the business had expanded so much there were 4000 employees recruited into the British Forces and the Smith family had been apppointed to the peerage.

WHS continued to expand throughout the twentieth century and to the present.

There is a fascinating history on the company’s website which details the expansion.

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